VOTE 2016: The DPP Did Not Mastermind Sino-SkepticismChina’s actions and repressive political system are to blame for public apprehensions about China, not the DPP
Lacking an actual policy platform ahead of the January 2016 elections, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) presidential candidate Eric Chu’s (朱立倫) camp appears to have made it a policy to blame the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) for just about everything, from tainted cooking oil to the state of the economy. On the campaign trail today, Mr. Chu continued that trend with accusations that the DPP had “masterminded,” presumably for political gain, “Sino-skepticism” among a large swath of young Taiwanese.
Mr. Chu is absolutely right: many young Taiwanese today are apprehensive about China and wary of its intentions. A small number of them could even be said to have feelings of hatred for their neighbor and want nothing to do with it.
However, the KMT candidate misses the mark when he proposes that the DPP is behind the negative perceptions of China, a view that could only be espoused by the representative of a party that continues to misjudge civil society and ignores the generational pressures that have been transforming politics in Taiwan. Such comments also highlight the preposterous belief that young people in an open society like Taiwan are empty vassals who can be “brainwashed” by government/party propaganda. Not only is this insulting to Taiwan’s youth, it greatly overstates the ability of the main opposition party to influence beliefs.
The relationship that young Taiwanese have with their next-door neighbor is, in reality, a lot more complex. It involves both a desire for normalization and the recognition that the People’s Republic of China is a very different place, characterized by a different history, geography, political system, and chosen national narrative. The desire for normal ties with China, which is arguably felt by most young Taiwanese today, who overwhelmingly regard Taiwan as their home and country, would not exist if its youth had outright “hatred” for China or wanted nothing to do with it. Nor would such a sentiment be possible if the DPP had, as Mr. Chu claims, successfully manipulated their thoughts.
Apprehensions about China have emerged instead from a series of developments, some longstanding, others more contemporary, that are directly related to China’s behavior. We must note, furthermore, that those developments stand to affect not only supporters of the DPP, but all 23 million people in Taiwan, including those who presumably will vote for Mr. Chu on Jan. 16. By singling out the DPP for Sino-skepticism, Mr. Chu and his aides forget that, among other things, China: aims approximately 1,600 ballistic missiles at Taiwan; has expanded its military; conducts military exercises simulating an assault on Taiwan; has intensified intelligence collection, propaganda, united front, and political warfare efforts against it; imposes a “one China” principle on it and has repeatedly punished anyone who refuses to abide by this construct, as Ting Wen-yin (丁文茵), Taiwan’s representative at Miss Earth 2015, recently discovered.
Since we know for certain that missiles do not discriminate, it is very difficult to imagine that supporters of Mr. Chu’s KMT are not also offended by the military threat from China and fear for the lives of their loved ones. People’s Liberation Army bombs and bullets don’t care about voting preferences, and would kill as many DPP voters as KMT — proponents of unification included. The same applies to the repeated affronts against the dignity of the people here, or moves by Beijing that unreasonably threaten the livelihood of all Taiwanese, from air-traffic safety to the ability to interact with the WHO during an epidemic. Heaven forbid that Mr. Chu would accuse the actual aggressor of poisoning relations in the Taiwan Strait! Instead, he blames the victims.
The fact of the matter is that Taiwanese do not need the DPP, which is admittedly more careful about engaging Beijing, to be apprehensive about China’s intentions: China itself (or the Chinese Communist Party, to be more precise) fuels those fears with its actions: its military posture, oppressive political system, disdain for freedom of expression, aggressive nationalism, and the worrying example of a possible future that Hong Kong has provided in recent years. With the exception of a small percentage of the population (less than 10%), the people here — not just DPP supporters — want to maintain their liberal-democratic way of life and do not want to be part of the PRC. This includes the many people who prefer the “status quo.” That is not an anti-China sentiment, but rather a pro-Taiwan/ROC one based on the legitimate right to self-determination, a different motivation altogether.
Recent Taiwan Indicators Survey Research (TISR) polls make it clear that negative perceptions of China go well beyond the ability of the DPP to shape perceptions: Only 13.7% of respondents in a 2015 survey felt positively about the CCP, against 60.7% who felt negatively about it; 18.9% said they trust President Xi Jinping (習近平), while 53.8% did not. Given the large proportion of unfavorable views, it is evident that a substantial number of them are KMT voters. The KMT supporters whom I interviewed during their protest against the party’s efforts to dump its initial presidential candidate, Hung Hsiu-chu (洪秀柱), in early October, were also very clear that their country — the Republic of China — is not the authoritarian PRC. Surely the DPP did not “brainwash” those people, who were more than ready themselves to blame the DPP for several other things!
Given all this, it is in fact rather extraordinary that Sino-phobia, “China hating” or an “anti-China” sentiment, as foreign media and Beijing are wont to (wrongly) describe it, are not more prevalent across Taiwan, where the majority of people have in fact demonstrated a willingness to normalize relations with it.
Mr. Chu will have a difficult time wining over young Taiwanese voters if he continues to insult their intelligence with his claims about the DPP manipulating their fears.
J. Michael Cole is editor in chief of Thinking Taiwan, a senior non-resident fellow at the China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham, and an Associate researcher at the French Center for Research on Contemporary China (CEFC) in Taipei.